AUSTIN, Texas — “I am the musician,” Dave Grohl said during this keynote speech at the South by Southwest music festival and conference, “and I come first.”
In just under an hour Thursday, the former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters leader preached artist independence — a philosophy, he said, that was informed by seeing Chicago punk band Naked Raygun and being almost destroyed by the “guilt” of success.
It was a speech that alternately corrected some myths about Nirvana while perpetuating others. Grohl’s former band shot to alt-rock superstardom after the release of “Nevermind” in 1991, an album that took Nirvana’s rough-around-the-edges frustration at all things mainstream and made it palatable for Top 40 radio. Lessons learned from the experience, said Grohl, reminded him of his punk rock beginnings as a kid growing up near Washington, D.C.
Here in Austin to promote his studio documentary “Sound City,” as well as to perform an all-star show Thursday night with the likes of John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks and Rick Springfield, Grohl, sporting a pair of “drug store” reading glasses, didn’t touch on any issues plaguing the industry. Like Bruce Springsteen last year, Grohl entertained by playing up his fandom, even mouthing the opening riffs of the Edgar Winter Group’s early ’70s staple “Frankenstein,” and encouraged artists to feed their do-it-yourself spirit.
“Who’s to say what’s a good voice and not a good voice?” Grohl asked before bringing up the talent competitions filling today’s prime-time network TV schedules. “‘The Voice’? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing ‘Blowin in the Wind’ in front of Christina Aguilera. ‘I think you sound a little nasally and sharp.’ It’s your voice. Cherish it, respect it.”
Grohl, telling a story he’s told numerous times in recent interviews, said he found his “voice” on a family trip to Chicago, when his punk rock cousin Tracy introduced him to Black Flag, the Ramones, Buzzcocks, Descendents and the Minutemen. “It was the first day of the rest of my life,” he said.
She, said Grohl, took him to his first gig, Naked Raygun, which was playing at the Cubby Bear. It was, recalled Grohl, “the most ferocious noise — bodies were flying everywhere. Volume, broken glass, piss and … puke. I was in heaven and it was our secret … I was no longer one of you. I was one of us.”
Grohl spoke nostalgically of a “Rock Against Reagan” concert on July 4, 1983, in Washington, D.C., when Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys nearly incited a riot. Grohl said it was that moment he knew what he wanted to do: “I was free. I wanted to incite a riot, or an emotion, or to save someone’s life to inspire them to write a book or pick up an instrument … I wanted to be someone’s Naked Raygun.”
He was, for a brief moment in the early ’90s, part of what became seemingly everyone’s Nirvana. Grohl mentioned that label boss David Geffen had planned to sell 35,000 copies of “Nevermind” in its first few weeks, but by the end of 1991, it was selling 300,000 copies per week. How and why that happened, Grohl left to those who would rather mythologize the band, saying it was perhaps timing, or perhaps hoards of disaffected youth sick of the likes of Wilson Phillips ruling the charts.
He did, however, correct one misunderstanding about Nirvana’s rise to fame, which the media often portrayed as reluctant stardom. Nirvana wanted it, and it came straight from the mouth of lead singer Kurt Cobain, who eventually took his own life in April 1994. Grohl relayed an early meeting with famed record executive Don Ienner before signing the “Nevermind” deal.
Ienner, recalled Grohl, asked Cobain. “So, what do you guys want?” As Grohl tells it, “Kurt slouched in his chair and looked up at Donnie sitting behind his massive oak desk and said, ‘We want to be the biggest band in the world.’ I laughed. I thought he was … kidding. He wasn’t.”
Grohl remembered what was at the top of the Billboard charts at the time, laughing as he tallied off the likes of Roxette, Phil Collins and Billy Idol. “How Kurt could even think we’d make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me,” he said. “It was beyond everyone. It made absolutely no sense. It was simply unimaginable. It was the type of hopeless, shallow aspirations that we had been conditioned to reject, ultimately relieving us of any intention other than to just be ourselves.”
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The success of “Nervermind” meant that “no one ever would” tell the band what to do again, Grohl said, and he offered the Steve Albini-produced “In Utero” as example. Compared to “Nevermind,” “In Utero” was Nirvana in the raw, the sound of strained vocals and static guitars.
Grohl glossed over the band’s fights with Geffen to get the album released, or the fact that Geffen remixed all the singles so they sounded drastically different from Albini’s originals. Instead, he cited “In Utero” as a “brazen example” of Nirvana’s independence.
Yet it also came at a time when the band was attempting to make sense of its success, Grohl said. “How do you process going from being one of us to one of them? Guilt. Guilt is cancer. Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist. It’s a black wall. It’s a thief.”
Grohl said that Cobain’s death made him “numb” but that it also reminded him to reject all ideas of a “guilty pleasure” or what someone else’s ideas of success may be. He admitted that Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is one of his favorite songs, and he ripped on music tastemaking site Pitchfork. “Paging Pitchfork! You need to come and determine the value of the song,” he sarcastically said of the site famed for its numeric ratings.
Grohl then spoke of recording what would become the first Foo Fighters record, only this time he didn’t sign with a label. He created his own, Roswell Records. “We own the album,” he said, “and we’ll license it to you for a little while, but you have got to give it back because it is mine. I am the musician and I come first.”
The lesson of Nirvana — and Cobain’s death — was one Grohl attempted to relay to all artists performing at SXSW this week. Live in a bubble, he seemed to be saying. As long as it’s yours.
“At 13 years old, I realized I could start my own band. I could write my own song, I could record my own record. I could start my own label. I could release my own record. I could book my own shows. I could write and publish my own fanzine. I could silk-screen my own T-shirt. I could do this all myself.
“There was no right or wrong,” he concluded, “because it was all mine.”